A guided meditation from John Tarrant: You’re walking along, and you’re kind of in the middle of your life—which you always are, no matter how old you are, you are in the middle of it—and you’re sort of just thinking and noticing, and then you have this idea: Why don’t I treat my whole life as a pilgrimage? That’s it. That’s what I’ll do.
Hi, welcome. Good to be here. I’m just feeling what here is.
So, we have a situation here. And the situation is as follows:
You’re walking along, and you’re kind of in the middle of your life—which you always are, no matter how old you are, you are in the middle of it—and you’re sort of thinking and noticing, and you have this whole idea: Why don’t I treat my whole life as a pilgrimage? That’s it. That’s what I’ll do. So I’ll treat my life as a pilgrimage. And cool, that’s a good start.
So I’m walking along, and I’m sort of holding this koan about peach blossoms. And it’s kind of really cool, because I enjoy the idea of peach blossoms. But, you know, I’m just walking along, and then things come to my mind. And I think of a koan:
Zhaozhou had this story about a minister who comes to him, and they’re having a cup of tea and a conversation. And the minister says, “Well, do you practice? And how do you practice?”
And Zhaozhou says, “It would be a disaster if I did,” which is a pretty good answer if you think about it. And the official says, “Well, if you don’t practice, who does?”
And Zhaozhou says, “You!”
And the official says, “I’m just a minister of the government. This is the nearest I’ve been to a temple in ten years.”
And Zhaozhou says, “When you are hungry, did not food appear? When you were cold, did not you have blankets and clothes to put on? When you were sad, did you not have friends to meet with? How can you say you do not practice?”
And the official began weeping.
So you’re thinking about that. You’re walking along and thinking: I don’t know why I’m thinking about that—but I’ll trust it. And then you’re thinking about the peach blossoms. There is a story about peach blossoms, and you’re aware of that, and…
This person, for thirty years: rain and sleet and sunshine and heat and thirst, a cool drink at sunset, and food…
And then you’re thinking about it, and how in the koan he sees peach blossoms, and you’re thinking, You know, I’d really like to set my doubts to rest. And then you’re going along, and you’re thinking about that koan-story that Zhaozhou tells. And the minister, it just seemed that something opened in him and he stepped into the koan. He didn’t really understand it or anything. It just took him over.
And so you’re thinking about that and walking along. You’re feeling pretty peaceful, and then you just start getting annoyed with all these people who tell you that if you really do the koan right, you’ll have great enlightenment. And you think, But isn’t that grasping? And then all those people that say “You shouldn’t look for great enlightenment, because you should just be here.” And they’re kind of annoying too.
And then you’re annoyed with the people who are annoyed with the people who whine about enlightenment and the people who whine about how you shouldn’t have enlightenment. And the people who whine about that you need no doubts and people who doubt that they have no doubts—all that sort of thing. And you’re just walking along, and you’re kind of getting pissed off.
And then suddenly, you’re starting to think about, you know, I could just get some land around here and have a farm and a chicken shed. I’d have chickens and eggs. And then you’re thinking about chickens and eggs, and how you kind of like chickens—they’re kind of dopey, but you know, they’re also kind of friendly. And then that seems to be an improvement on thinking about enlightenment. So you’re going along, remembering chickens you’ve known. And then you start thinking about animals, remembering dogs that have been good companions.
And then the Peach Blossom koan seems to come in, and you think, Oh, maybe that’s a good dog following me. And then you just sort of get lost, and you sink into your walking. And you forget who you are. I mean, you don’t really forget who you are, because you see the trees and the path and the gravel in front of you. And it feels like Zhaozhou actually is walking with you. In fact, maybe you kind of are Zhaozhou right now. And you’re walking along and not really noticing.
And then you see that somehow you’ve taken a turn, and you’re off the main path. You’re on a beautiful path, and you think, I’m just gonna trust it; I’m gonna go with what the universe is giving me. And you just keep walking, and the path goes down.
And you notice there’s a well. It looks like an old ancient well there. It’s got a blue ceramic lip on it, and it kind of looks familiar, but I don’t know—maybe I dreamed it once. And isn’t it really awesome, in the Dharma? The way you can dream of something and then it appears. And you start thinking about that for a while, and how cool that is, and then you sort of fall back into your walking.
And then, somehow, you don’t know how, but somehow you’ve come into the forest, and the canopy has deepened.
Actually, there are walls around you and there’s a roof over you. And there’s a little alcove and it’s got a Buddha in it. And then there’s another little alcove, which has a can of Coca Cola. And even though you don’t drink Coca Cola, you really regret having turned away from the well from before. And there’s a little sign that says, Help Yourself. You open the can of Coke, and it goes ffsst! and spurts up a little bit. And there’s a little cup there with blue dragons running around it. And you pour the can of Coke into the cup, and it’s really cold. And you remember just how great Coke was when you were a kid, although you’ve gotten kind of snobbish about it now. So you have the can of Coke, and you just, ahhh!
And then you stop thinking about anything, but you notice your feet are still walking. And then suddenly you’re looking. What is that I’m looking at? These huge eyes. And they’re just looking at you, and it doesn’t seem like there’s time to go back. You can’t turn around and go back now. And so you have to confront these eyes. And the more you look at them—you see something’s got scales and it’s blue. And you can hear it inside your mind, and it says, Yes? with a slight question. And then you say, “Well, who are you?” And it doesn’t even bother answering in your mind. It just keeps looking at you. And you say, “Well, I kind of want to know that stuff about when I get enlightened—am I going to have doubts, or not?”
And it doesn’t even bother answering that either, and just keeps looking at you and looking at you and looking at you, and you fall deeper and deeper.
And you forget about chickens even, and you forget about whether or not you’re going to have no doubts. You don’t forget about the Coca Cola because you can still taste that in your mouth, but it’s kind of great—and it wasn’t Diet Coke either. And so here you are with this dragon, this amazing being, and you don’t know what to ask. But then the eyes are kind when you realize you don’t know what to ask, and you’re just suddenly there. And you’re not trying to get something and you’re not trying to please and you’re not trying to placate and you’re not trying to turn back, even though you don’t really understand what’s going on.
And then you understand, Oh! And then you think of Linji, who is the great old master at the beginning of the koan tradition. And you can somehow tell that the dragon hears what you’re thinking. And the dragon looks a little bit more friendly when you think about Linji. Maybe he knew Linj—or she knew Linji—we don’t know. How can you tell with a dragon? Maybe they knew Linji.
And so, Linji would sometimes address his followers and he’d say, “Stream-enterers, followers of the Way…” When a person has entered the stream they haven’t had great satori, they haven’t really been transformed by peach blossoms, but there’s this weird thing going on, and they can’t turn back.
And then you remember, Oh—once upon a time somebody told you about a retreat. And you said, “Wow!” And you didn’t know anything about it. And they said, “You can go, but you won’t come back.” And you think, Shit, I’m in a sesshin right now. I’m doomed. Can I tiptoe out? But you can’t actually do that—there’s no back to go to. It’s like the ship’s wake. It has disappeared into the sea. And somehow that makes you feel enormously more peaceful. And you just sit there.
And then the dragon nods, and you see there’s a cushion there so you can sit. The dragon’s a little concerned about you standing so long. And then you feel that, Oh, you understand. The dragon. Dragons are the only other creatures, other than humans, who can practice. Dragons are the only other creatures that can get enlightened. However, unlike humans, dragons live through the kalpa fires and through the beginnings of universes. And the dragon’s apparently always here in this cave, with a well outside, even when there’s not a universe. For the moment, fortunately, there’s a universe, and there’s you, and you have the dragon.
And then you hear other things, and the dragon says things like, “Well…” and just sighs. And you think, Oh, yes, I understand that. As soon as I’m here, I begin to rush off and begin to tell myself about what here is. And I tell myself, “Well, it was cool. I met this dragon and…” And then the dragon sighs again. And you’re just here again. And then everything starts to spread out. Your heart seems to expand. And you feel time. I don’t know what time is, but it doesn’t seem to matter right now.
And so you realize that the living presence of Linji is here. Linji says,
Stream-enterers, followers of the Way, the problem is that you just don’t have faith in yourselves.
You rush about wondering whether you should have doubts or not.
You rush about looking for things, but what you look for you do not trust—and it is here.
And there is nobody who does not have it.
You think, Wow, that dragon really did know Linji pretty well, eh? And you sort of look at the dragon, and the dragon looks maybe mildly amused. But you can’t tell whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, because it’s a dragon.
And then you feel this other odd thing—you look around the cave and you see jewels, and you see relics of the old masters, and you see scrolls. And a scroll that has the character of the great koan NO is there, in the dragon’s cave. And you feel, Isn’t that cool? And then there’s a painting of peach blossoms. You can tell the dragon is actually an art collector, and that makes you feel a lot better about dragons.
And then the dragon looks at you again. Suddenly, you don’t feel a lot better about dragons.
The dragon can see straight through your heart. And then you realize this other thing: Oh, with the dragon, if I give the wrong answer, I die. But the right answer is just what’s true. And so it’s very easy to befriend the dragon. All I have to say is what’s true. I’m afraid… I long for… I wish… I’m sad. And then you realize the dragon already knows that anyway. And so what the dragon’s asking is for you to know the vastness and greatness of what it is to be a human being on this planet, in this place.
Have confidence in yourself. You can hear Linji again. You have a feeling of, Wow, I’m really meeting Linji:
The problem lies in you not having confidence in yourself and running off.
And you think, That’s kind of true, isn’t it? And the dragon raises—doesn’t really have eyebrows—but they twitch a bit. And the dragon is still there. And then you can hear the dragon’s thoughts, and they’re like music, and you can hear this beautiful music. It’s like you’re hearing the music that the stars make, and the music of before time, and the music between the universes.
And then you move on to something else. Linji also said,
Whatever confronts you, don’t believe it.
Whatever confronts you, shine your light on it.
Shine your light on it. Regard your situation honestly. Be the host to your situation.
Have confidence in the light that is always at work inside you, says the living presence of Linji.
And you feel it in your heart and your bones and you weep a little. You’re touched, you know. And they’re the tears of the Way. They’re not for sorrow. You don’t have to explain them. They’re just here. And you can feel that tenderness, really, every time you truly look at something without trying to grab it for yourself, or for an opinion or belief or any of that stuff, you know.
And then you ask, “Well, do you practice?” And the dragon just laughs. It’s really funny. And the dragon’s amused by your sense of humor, and then he gives you another gift. And then you say, “Well, what koan should I work with? I’ve been working with Peach Blossoms, and I think that’s great. But is there another koan I could work with? Just for tonight, maybe. I don’t know if it is night because it looks like the stars and everything’s in here, but I don’t know if it’s night or not.” And the dragon says,
Freely, I watch the tracks of the flying birds.
And many things come to mind, and you feel like a bird, and you can feel your wings lift and your shoulder blades lift. And you can feel the vastness of space and the freedom of just being carried by the wind, and you realize the wind is like a river all by itself, and it carries you. And you remember Linji saying,
I am just a person with nothing to do.
And the wind carries you, and you go deep into a formless meditation of the kind that when you come back, you don’t know.
And then you sort of blink and you open your eyes and you’re sitting in a seat overlooking a river that’s running by, and on the opposite canyon there are peach blossoms. Peach blossoms. And your whole chest bursts open as it has many times before and will many times again.
Any questions? Anybody worried about their doubts?
Let’s just sit together a bit and watch the tracks of the flying birds. That’s something you might experience—to have been a bird. It feels familiar, to have been a bird. To be a bird. I am that, says the old Indian sutra. I am that. That am me. Feeling the tracks of the flying birds and the joy of the flying—the joy. Then you realize, Oh it’s not my joy, it’s not bird’s joy. Maybe it’s the dragon’s joy.
But here we are. It’s the joy of being here. It’s the joy of being the universe.
And so, before praise or blame, before good or bad, before belief or doubt: here.
—John Tarrant in Spring Sesshin, April 9, 2021